Briefing: Lessons from past food crises
World leaders gather in Rome Tuesday for a UN food crisis conference. What does history teach about how to handle such shortages?
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What institutional responses have been helpful?Skip to next paragraph
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During this crisis – like those in the past – governments have initially acted to either protect their consumers or their producers, with mixed results. Some like Mauritania and Egypt are now spending money to increase food assistance to the poor. Cash handouts are better than food handouts, nongovernmental organizations say.
Two dozen countries have reduced import duties in an effort to make food cheaper for their citizens. Others are trying to boost local infrastructure to help local producers.
Longer term, Oxfam spokesperson Amy Barry calls for basic measures like better storage facilities, roads, and ports to ensure that produce in developing countries by smaller producers competes on a level playing field. The World Bank has noted that better transport links in Congo helped to brake accelerating food prices in 2006.
What institutional responses have not been helpful?
Predictably, many governments have rushed to restrict exports to ensure that their own people don't go hungry while their produce is being shipped overseas. But national hoarding, history tells us, tends to perpetuate the global shortage, pushing up prices. "It's more a result of panic reaction rather than rational thinking," says Abbassian. "Export restrictions – taxes and bans – that we have seen starting with Russia, Ukraine, and Argentina, prolong the situation."
Longer term, some analysts say the subsidies and tariffs that Europe and the US have used to protect their farmers must be reduced. Some experts note that the Nixon administration boosted US subsidies (instead of loans) to farmers as the "solution" to the 1970s grain crisis.
Today, "France is arguing that subsidies are even more necessary than before" [to ensure food security and build up domestic stockpiles], says Prof. Wyn Grant, a food and agricultural policy expert at Warwick University in England. "But these are blanket, nontargeted subsidies which have little to do with what is produced. The higher tariff protection also makes it very difficult for third world producers to break into world agriculture."
How much grain to produce one pound of meat?
Chicken = 2.6 pounds of feed
Pork = 6.5 pounds of feed
Beef = 7.0 pounds of feed
Source: USDA Economic Research Service